Everyone and their mother knows that Team USA can score. Hell, it was on full display against Italy, where Miles Bridges had 24 points and seven rebounds in just 18 minutes of action.
What the Americans showed this time around, however, was tenacity on the defensive end that should have their prospective semifinal opponents worried.
After a slow-ish start in the early first quarter, where it was a close 11-8 lead for Team USA at one point, they really turned on their defense and keyed a 13-6 run that pushed their lead to 24-14. They never looked back after that.
What was immediately noticeable was how much more focused they were on the defense during that run and for the rest of the game. The superior athleticism was evident, with players like Bridges, Tyrese Haliburton, Austin Reaves, Paolo Banchero, Josh Hart and Bobby Portis, to name a few, showing how they were able to harass their opponents inside and on the perimeter. This prevented the Italians from penetrating the paint, as they were were forced to pass the ball around the half court and looked uneasy about even taking some open shots because the Americans could cover so much ground even when the set defense broke down.
Living and dying by the long ball did not work out for the Italians. They shot 2 of 19 from three in the first half, and 7 of 38 for the game in the 100-63 destruction.
That stifling defense may be only ended up in six blocks and seven steals overall on paper, but anyone who saw the game witnessed the Americans recover from defensive breakdowns so quickly that what looked like it should have been an open shot ended up with a defender in the vicinity to at least bother a shot attempt.
It doesn’t matter which edition of Team USA it is, if they get ready to defend you like they hate you, you’re going to have a bad time. Toni Kukoc will tell you about what happens.
You could see how frustrating it was for the Italians, too, as they would often use anywhere from 18 to 24 seconds of the shot clock just to get up a bad attempt, simply to watch those miscues get turned into fast break points both at the rim and the three-point line on the other end of the floor.
If any moment encapsulated the game, it was probably Simone Fontecchio, who plays for the Utah Jazz, picking up his fifth foul with eight minutes left to play and dejectedly walking to the bench.
In a way, the humbling 110-104 defeat to Lithuania in the final game of the group stages may have been a blessing in disguise for Team USA. They got reminded that with all the talent they have, funny things can still happen in international basketball, and they can’t always rely on their inarguable scoring advantage to win.
That same Lithuanian team, of course, ended up getting the shit kicked out of them by Serbia.
One thing that Team USA may want to keep a lookout for is their technical fouls, however. They picked up a bunch of of them against Italy, and they may not want to do so again when facing a team like Canada or Slovenia.
Still, they’ve reminded everyone why they are the big favorites, as usual, to win the championship. They’ve still got to deliver, but things are looking good at the moment.